BY ALEX McKENZIE
Bus horns pierce the silence at dawn to wake the children for school, deep in the rugged mountains of rural Nepal.
The noise seems out of place in a sleepy village. It’s almost as if you can’t entirely escape the cacophony of the city.
Shiva Thapa is fluent in the sounds of the city streets, yet he has chosen to settle here in Rayale village - around three and a half hours drive south-east of capital Kathmandu.
Like the bus horns, Mr Thapa doesn’t appear to belong among the green terraces, buffalos and looming snow-capped mountains.
At 38-years-old he is one of the few middle-aged residents in Rayale, as most eventually leave to find work in Kathmandu.
However, his appearance lends an insight into the disparity between traditional Nepali culture and how he chooses to live.
Tattoos of swirling mandalas and Nepali mantras spill unapologetically down his arms and legs.
He wears tracksuit pants, sneakers, and his trademark red beanie which lends him a carefree and unrestrained demeanour. A departure from most women and men in the village, who wear traditional Nepali garments.
It is the younger generation, Mr Thapa said, who are moving away from this trend.
“I’m not from Nepal,” he jokes - born and raised in Nepal, his remark hints at a desire for distance from his cultural roots.
Most people in the village think he’s strange, but he doesn’t seem to mind, he said.
When he got his first tattoo he lied to his parents.
“It’s a fake one and it will go away,” he told them.
“I haven’t told [my wife] but one of my big dreams is to cover my body [with tattoos],” Mr Thapa said, grinning while sharing this information in English - a language she can't understand.
“For me, [they’re] like a story.”
His tattoos almost led to their divorce, he said, and yet one of them manages to make her smile.
On his right forearm is ‘Sunita’, her name, written in black ink.
“Now I think she wants to have a small butterfly tattoo,” Mr Thapa said.
“She’s getting there.”
His wife sits beside him on the floor of their house of mud and stone, waiting patiently by the stove and only eating after everyone else in the house has finished.
If it were up to Mr Thapa, they would eat together, but his wife insists on preserving this gendered custom.
Mr Thapa has also prepared a curry and serves it to his guests, alongside Sunita's cooking, with pride.
It is a rare sight in the village to see a man over the coals of a mud stove, but his previous work in hospitality has lent him a fondness for cooking.
“I am better than Sunita at cooking,” he said, sheepishly placing his curry beside hers.
Mr Thapa is reserved, shying away from conversation unless prompted, but he is a people-pleaser.
Despite his detachment from Nepali tradition, he has felt the need to meet family expectations.
For one, he is in an arranged marriage.
“I got married because of the social background of my family and being the only son,” Mr Thapa said.
He was 31-years-old when he decided to settle down, which meant he was under immense pressure from his family to get married and have children.
“My pressure now is I need to have a son,” he said.
“This is a sad part of our society.”
He speaks of his six-year-old daughter, Lakshida, with a warmth cutting through the Nepal winter.
She places her small stool in view of her father - her maths books splayed on the ground as she counts aloud in English.
Her mother wants her to be a doctor when she grows up. Her father doesn’t want any influence on her future choices – a mind-set developed from his own strict upbringing.
“For me, my parents…[made me] go to uni,” Mr Thapa said.
“[They said] you have to study science, you have to do this, you have to do that – [I won’t] be like that.”
Unlike his Hindu family, Mr Thapa worships no deity but the beat of his own drum.
“If [my daughter] just becomes my good daughter, she doesn’t have to be Hindu or Christian,” he said.
“Whatever she wants to be, she can be.”
Hinduism is the most practiced religion in Nepal, making up more than 80 per cent of the country’s population of 28.09 million.
Mr Thapa is one of 0.2 per cent of the population in the ‘undefined’ category, worshipping no deity.
It is only for his family that he engages in the Hindu traditions and village customs.
Mr Thapa works for tour company Rustic Pathways, a program dedicated to providing educational travel experiences for high school and university students, which affords him more time with his family.
He pioneered Rustic homestays in Rayale village, where he welcomes international students into his home.
However, before his marriage, another story was written on his skin – one not accustomed to a settled existence.
In the bustling streets of Kathmandu, remnants of his wilder days peek from the alleyways and bars.
When he isn’t working at home he leaves Rayale to work in Kathmandu where he co-runs a hostel known as Funky Monkey.
He has confidence in the city, unlike in the village.
He appears in his element, weaving through the traffic effortlessly, walking in the middle of the chaotic streets with one arm out signalling the vehicles to stop.
As he walks into a bar, a staff member recognises him and immediately clears a table full of customers to seat him.
At a club in Thamel, he speaks to the doorman and ushers inside a group of university students he accompanies for Rustic Pathways, free of charge.
The city seems to embrace an emerging group of young people who have abandoned old Nepali traditions.
Mr Thapa believes it’s his exposure to city-life which has played a role in influencing his different perception to Nepali customs.
“I have seen the drastic things in life,” he said.
He speaks of a time when his face became paralysed after working as a bartender and partying in urban India.
“I think my immune system was too weak and because I was not eating,” Mr Thapa said.
“I was into too much drugs, too much partying, too much alcohol.”
He blames his inability to “say no” and his affiliation with “too many friend circles” for his unbalanced lifestyle and ultimate bodily shut-down.
Afterwards, the first five years of marriage were a low-point for Mr Thapa as he had no job and was a full-time dad.
“I was more like a mother,” he said, alluding to the conventional gender roles in Nepal.
Now, with a steady income he still misses his independence, but believes an ordinary Nepali life has grounded him.
Mr Thapa desires to become more involved with the Rayale primary school in instilling an effective waste management plan.
He values Nepali culture, but believes its old traditions should be fostered alongside a modern outlook.
“I think with [the younger generation] especially in the cities, they will have no idea what the traditions are,” Mr Thapa said.
His daughter, exposed to both worlds of Nepal, will be his legacy to see this transformation followed through.